Enlightened Self-Interest and Climate Change

earth climate changeThe Earth’s climates are changing. I’m an American. I’m currently “winning” in terms of climate, so change is likely to be bad for me. Efforts to mitigate the impacts will be important to me and to posterity. We can also reduce our ongoing contributions to the problem.

Huge international summits produce more media stories than useful action. The world carries too much political baggage from the age of European colonization and – especially for America – the Cold War. At climate conferences, westernized nations see attempts at revenge and emerging economies see ongoing imperialism. Talking is better than shooting, but we need many answers, tailored to specific problems or locations.

I prefer enlightened self-interest, so I was pleased to read that “plenty of entrepreneurs are not waiting for the diplomats. They are finding ways to cut carbon emissions and make money from doing it.” While some “carbon offsets” seem phony – a tree planted today can be cut down tomorrow – I like the idea of reducing greenhouse gases at the source.

“Methane is… a potent greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere – cow manure is ripe with it – but [on an Oregon dairy farm], the methane is captured and funneled into a red generator the size of a mini-bus. The generator burns it to make electricity. That electricity is sold back to the local power company. The farmers get paid.” To reject this idea and say we should get rid of the cows is to miss an opportunity.

But the manure to methane project has another source of income. “FarmPower makes additional money just for taking that methane out of circulation. For every ton of that methane they capture they earn a credit worth about five to $10. FarmPower then sells those credits to anyone who has to lower their own carbon emissions, say, a coal-fired power plant.”

America has used the “cap and trade” technique for many years, for example, to reduce sulfur-related smog. In the late 1970s, a refinery I worked for paved dirt roads around its plant to reduce dust generated by vehicles and thereby allow the refinery to put dust out its stack. (Don’t laugh at dust. Inhaled dust particles are directly linked to health problems.)

Pollution became a commodity to trade, capped because new sources are restricted. As economist Hernando De Soto has noted, “every developed nation in the world at one time went through the transformation from predominantly informal, extralegal ownership to a formal, unified legal property system.” Americans are good at this. We can turn anything into capital – even pollution.

A market for greenhouse gases requires laws and regulations. Even without a nation-wide system, “the U.S. carbon market is worth a few hundred million dollars a year.” See, for example, ClimateTrust.org. What some people see as an imposition on existing industries, others see as creating wealth out of thin air. But without an underlying value to commoditized, the carbon market is an economic trick that will easily evaporate. That value is clean air.

Who owns the air? American’s values have changed over the years. I worked at a copper mine in New Mexico with a smelter in the town of Hurley. One of my co-workers grew up in Hurley and remembers, as a kid playing baseball, someone had to watch the plume from the smelter stack because if wind conditions blew it down to ground level, the kids ran indoors to avoid the choking fumes. That is unacceptable today. On a personal level, cigarette smoke in restaurants once left me sneezing and teary eyed. When I was a kid, smokers had the rights and tough-luck for me. Today I have the right and smokers must be accommodating.

It seems reasonable that the base-case is clean air, so those who dirty it have taken something from us all and owe something to society. The details are, of course, debatable – how clean is clean? what is fair? how do we split the cost between society, shareholders, employees, and neighbors? I’m enough of a libertarian to believe my rights are equal to a company’s rights.

Who owns the climate? Climate is even harder to understand than air. But I don’t throw my hands up in despair. Over decades, science has made great strides towards understanding climate and climatologists agree on many points. While there is more to learn, we know quite a bit.

That copper mine I worked in did nothing unknown to nature – land is always being eroded away and deeper layers exposed. But a mine does in decades what nature would take eons to accomplish, so it’s important to control pollution at a mine. Climate has changed before, but human contributions create a rate of change that is faster than climate changes in Earth’s past. It makes sense to protect our future. It’s just enlightened self-interest.

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